I just came from four days at BUKIT LAWANG near GUNUNG LEUSER NP in Sumatra…Such an amazing place and it’s really tragic the way that the town has yet to recover from the 2003 flood. It needs only one thing – and that’s tourists. Pre Nov.2003 Bukit Lawang was an absolute oasis for travelers to northern Sumatra and we made up a HUGE part of the local economy.
Today, it’s almost a ghost town – and it’s a real shame becuase, while some of the infrastructure (banks, internet, 24 hour power some places) has yet to return, much remains and the real draw – ORANGUTANS haven’t gone anywhere.
So, if you’re in Sumatra, here are some tips to get there, and if you are in Sumatra (or Penang, Hat Yai, KL – or anywhere with air connections to Medan) and you don’t make the effort than, in my oh so humble opinion, you’ve got to be crazy.
Medan is connected to many places all over SEAsia by air – and it’s genearlly really reasonably priced and easy to use. If not, it’s connected to Penang, Malaysia by a simple 4 hour ferry. I won’t bulls#*t you – Medan is smoky, noisy, gross and the Irish bar there isn’t enough of a draw for you to stay. I made it from Penang, through Medan all the way to BUKIT LAWANG in a long day – but it’s infintely preferable than staying there. However, the second time I went I was meeting a friend and since we had business to attend to, we stayed and went the next morning – a small (though painful) price to pay for the amazing orangutans.
The 3 – 4 hour journey from Medan is also no fun…it’s really bumpy, chances are Indonesian pop music will come blasting out of the stereo and the Indonesian habit of smoking clove cigs makes for a smoky (though fragrant) journey…no matter, it’s REALLY ALL WORTH IT.
Coming into BL, don’t believe the people who tell you the upriver accomodation is no longer there…it is, and it’s great. However, if you want to stay in town try NORA’S GUESTHOUSE (20,000 rupiah/2 people). Good food as well. Ask there for DONNIE or ERWIN – great guys and great guides for jungle treks. Nearer the bus drop off, right after the lonely bamboo bridge (which leads to 3 or 4 nondescript though functional guesthouses – roughly 25,000 rupiah) is the ROCK ISLAND GUESTHOUSE – looked really nice, stylish and cheap as well. Further upriver, though, are the real gems…We stayed at THE JUNGLE INN, 20 minutes from the village proper, super, super, super quiet (we had the whole river valley to ourselves – not another guest around) Ask for the “waterfall suite” – for 100,000 rupiah (still only 12 dollars) we stayed in the nicest guesthouse I’ve ever even seen…beautiful room, huge bathroom, porch, private waterfall, great views, sooooo nice. The food at JUNGLE INN is out of this world with homegrown teas (cinammon, lemongrass, ginger…) and great local things like gado-gado and curries.
The orangutans are still there and they obviously miss their previous attention. As most were once pets or orphaned, rehabilitation is an intregal part of the setup and at the twice daily feedings we came literally nose to nose with about a dozen of these great guys – and got to watch tiny little babies awkwardly climb about. It was really a great time and the community needs our help to get back on it’s feet – go and spend some money, sing with the generation of now jobless guides over Bintangs, and if you’re really lucky maybe a couple of the orangutans will break into your room and rummage through your pack…it happened to us, not once but twice. A small price to pay, however, for such an overwhelming experience.